A majority of online news outlets in the Western Balkans breached ethical standards when reporting on two mass shootings in Serbia last week. They typically reported on these tragic events in a sensationalist manner, publishing information of no public interest. In many cases reporting violated national ethical codes that those outlets are subscribed to; in quite a few, information was published illegally.
The news media, let alone the many ‘portals’ of murky origin, generally cared neither for the feelings of the victims, nor their families, ignoring the UNICEF Guidelines for Reporting on Children.
The headlines featured grotesque exaggerations, many unnecessary details, and graphic descriptions. Many outlets also published the name and photo of the underage perpetrator as well as videos, photos and detailed descriptions of the supposed crime scenes, churning out content with information that was unverified as well as unnecessary. This was accompanied with endless speculation on the motives, with many statements of witnesses, children and their parents deployed to increase reach. The codes of ethics warn journalists against the misuse of emotional distress of people involved in tragic incidents.
Public figures of different backgrounds were asked for, or volunteered opinions. Yet, few of those opinions helped calm and reassure the public. A number of politicians, such as Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić, contributed rants as if specifically designed to further traumatise the survivors, their families and the general public. In Serbia, public officials even shared information whose publication is prohibited under the Law on Personal Data Protection and the Law on Patients’ Rights. Not only did the media, with very few exceptions, obligingly print such statements verbatim, editors typically failed to blunt the potential impact of such offensive content with any sort of critical framing or additional information.
The widespread practice of copy-pasting content previously published by other outlets without verifying its credibility went into overdrive, something that the codes of ethics also strongly advise against. Countless social networks users uncritically shared such content, amplifying its reach and impact.
Among other advice, press codes of ethics in the region require writers and editors to exercise utmost caution when reporting on children and minors, taking the interest of the child into account first and respecting the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. As press councils in the region warned, publication of information on the basis of which children and minors who were victims, witnesses or alleged perpetrators of crimes can be identified, such as their or their names or photos, or the names or photos of their family members, or their places of residence, is contrary to professional standards. The codes also mandate that all topics related to personal tragedies be treated with due care. Editors are also explicitly advised to refrain from publishing content likely to have a traumatising effect on the audience, except when publication of such content serves public interest. Importantly, the presumed public hunger for such content must not be justification for publication of information that violates a person’s privacy.
SEENPM calls on editors of news outlets in the region to immediately end the practice of sensationalist reporting of traumatic events. We call upon editors to carefully review national press codes and other advice on professional standards and refamiliarise staff with those standards.
SEENPM also calls on editors to cease the practice of uncritically publishing statements of politicians and other public figures, especially when those carry the potential to offend, disturb or traumatise members of the public.
SEENPM calls on editors to end the practice of republishing content of other outlets without verification and copyright clearance.
SEENPM calls on social network users to exercise caution with news pieces on traumatic events and refrain from sharing news content that violates professional journalism standards.